A defeat to Manchester City on the back of Tuesday’s Champions League exit would have been brutal for Manchester United. But with the pressure on, Ole Gunnar Solskjaer once again came up with a way to stop Pep Guardiola.
The United boss described his team’s display as their best performance against their neighbours since he’s been in charge. That is debatable, given their victories home and away against City last season, but after the nightmare against RB Leipzig in midweek it was certainly an important one.
The game itself was far from memorable. Few Manchester derbies have produced such little excitement across the 90 minutes. But an evening of calm may just have suited Solskjaer right now. A chance to breathe, to reset and to now attack a run of winnable games over the Christmas period.
Ironically, it was Solskjaer’s most frequent causes of concern which delivered him some respite on Saturday.
David de Gea shrugged off questions about his status as No1 to save crucially from Riyad Mahrez. Harry Maguire and Victor Lindelof, the much-criticised centre-halves, won their battles, with the former making key blocks to deny Gabriel Jesus and Kevin De Bruyne.
The full-backs, Luke Shaw and Aaron Wan-Bissaka, again failed to ignite in attack but marshalled their wingers well.
Ahead of them, and alongside the reliable holding pair of Scott McTominay and Fred, Paul Pogba and Mason Greenwood bought into their unusual, unexpected wide roles in a midfield four.
Pogba, not unusually, had been a major talking point before kick-off, following comments earlier this week from his agent that he “had to change teams” in the upcoming transfer window.
But the Frenchman, out on the left, showed a discipline and determination to fit into this set-up. Only the impressive McTominay gained possession more times than Pogba for United.
On the other side of midfield, Greenwood weighed in with four tackles. No United player made more.
This caution-first approach, of course, had ramifications at the other end, blunting United’s attack. Greenwood and Marcus Rashford did not get a touch in the Man City box until well into the second half. The hosts only managed two shots on target in total.
That lack of action on the front foot would have been even more keenly felt if Old Trafford had been packed with home fans looking to be entertained on a freezing December day.
But yet, had Rashford been onside when he ran through and won a penalty from Kyle Walker at the start of the second half, that would have changed the verdict too.
Ultimately, Solskjaer and his team knew they had to deliver a needs-must display when defeat would have done real damage, not only to their league position, but also morale. They achieved that objective.
“I thought defensively we were excellent. Delighted with the defensive shape,” said Solskjaer afterwards. “Then again with the ball we didn’t create as much as we wanted to.”
This United side have a long way to go before they can combine both aspects consistently. It has been a frustration of their season that from game-to-game, and even half-to-half, they can lurch from brilliant to bewildering.
But in this derby – regardless of their opponents’ own failings, with City lacklustre in the extreme – United came together to recover from Tuesday’s hammer blow.
Next up is bottom-of-the-league Sheffield United. Then a Leeds team who have lost four out of six.
If United can back this result up with consecutive victories, perhaps this dire derby will be looked back on as the moment United regained a foothold in their season. It won’t be remembered for much else.